SIDEBAR
»
S
I
D
E
B
A
R
«
March: Jetpack Blues, Sunset Hues [Fukubukuro 2010]
Jan 4th, 2011 by Dan

I saw Anamanaguchi live for the first time in March and it was everything I could have hoped for on a night that was damn near a disaster.

Min and I assembled in Baltimore in front of a tiny club we’d never seen before. Sonar isn’t that far from the harbor. It’s a tiny club about the size you’d expect a band like Anamanaguchi and its 8-Bit Alliance traveling partners would be able to draw. Small and intimate. Scarily intimate, actually. I calmed myself by remembering that it’s rare for people other than myself to show up on time for a rock show.

No big deal. Grabbed a beer. Chatted with Min about stuff, including this girl I’d been out on a date with last week, Samantha, until the show started.

For all my love of the 8-bit music of my youth, I can’t say I’ve ever really been into chiptune music. It’s too much of a one-note gig, if you ask me. Why center your musical concept around a single gimmick? Wouldn’t it be better to integrate it with a legit rock band to turn it all up to eleven?

Most of the bands that night failed to capture Min and I for precisely that reason. How into it can you get at a show where the only thing the artist is doing is pushing buttons on his/her laptop or Game Boy? We were in the middle of being thoroughly unimpressed with the opening acts when I noticed that I had a voicemail from Samantha. This was bad.

Here’s the thing about budding relationships. There are norms that are set in their infancy. In this particular one we did most of our planning and communicating via text. Switching to phone calls could be good or bad, but the fact that I’d had our second date reneged on the week before meant that this could only be troubling news.

Really, how troubling could it honestly be? I’d known the girl for all of three weeks and really only been on one date, right? I mean, that’s what I told myself when I heard the voicemail that only confirmed what I already knew. I was a nice guy who did everything right, of course, but she wasn’t interested in dating me right now, which is really just about the nicest and worst things you could say in this situation because it means it’s out of my control.

So I stepped outside, called Samantha, had the embarrassing and slightly awkward conversation and went back in to see Min and tell him the bad news. Listening to mediocre music while telling myself and Min that it didn’t really matter when it clearly did was starting to prove too much for me. I couldn’t drink too much, because I had to drive, and I really didn’t want to be at Sonar listening to music either.

I’m glad I stuck it out that night. After three openers, Pete Berkman finally stepped on stage wearing a shirt emblazoned with a cat’s face and started engaging the audience with jokes and charisma that had been absent for most of the night. The set began and they rocked so hard my worries started to melt away. In between songs I even ran up to the stage and high-fived Pete.

After the set I took Min home and drove back down to my apartment. It had been a rough night, but I was able to smile just a bit because Anamanaguchi helped me forget about everything with an hour of white hot rock and roll.

Anamanaguchi

Tire Therapy or Driving In My Car Saves My Sanity [II]
Mar 23rd, 2010 by Dan

Creativity1

It was late fall or early winter. The precise season doesn’t matter; it was definitely cold. Equally cold was my companion riding shotgun. Her visit to icy Ithaca was, as usual, marred by the arguments we always found ourselves embroiled in, only this time I was living in a double with Min that should really have only been a single. The claustrophobia of such a tight space was so overwhelming that we traded it for the equally tight confines of my Corolla, but there’s something different about driving down a country road. Something that gives you the illusion of openness and freedom while you are crammed between lane lines and car chassis. The tension and anger seemed to flow away. We made peace and turned around about halfway to Lisle and didn’t look back that weekend.

Driving hasn’t always been this relaxing for me, but I don’t see how it ever could be for a kid. At age seven I can recall my mother telling us about her family’s weekend drives around California. They would pile in, drive around, and just enjoy taking in the sights. How incredibly dull life in the ’70s must have been if this was considered high family entertainment. This, of course, was her rationalization about why we were supposed to be looking out the window and taking in the sights instead of bickering, reading, or playing our Game Boys. It’s prohibitively expensive to fly a family of five anywhere for vacation, but that wasn’t going to stop my mother from taking us places. My family hit the road.

It’s fair to say that my love for asphalt stems entirely from covering so much ground in cars throughout my life. Beyond that, there’s power in driving to my destinations. Planes, trains, and public transportation all have me yielding control over departure times and the operation of the vehicle. Perhaps this is a male thing or maybe it’s just part of my personality, but I take great pride in getting myself places and I take great pleasure in taking in the sights that I ignored in my youth.

Out of character for me is that I actually enjoy solo drives more than a drive with passengers. I don’t hate having passengers, it’s plenty of fun, but I’m more of a fan of hitting the open road by myself, listening to music as loud as I want or to podcasts. The isolation affords me time to think, something I rarely give myself, and it even encourages me to catch up with my family and friends on the telephone.

The only thing that keeps me from driving to all my destinations is feasibility. I intend to see ballgames in Illinois, Texas, and Minnesota this year, but all of those destinations are more than ten hours away by car (take out Chicago and it’s twenty). Given that I’d only have a weekend to go to these places, it’s just a waste of my time and money to drive that far. Give me a destination within six hours and I’m already on the road.

I’m glad I don’t make a living on the road, but I hope that I’m able to hit the road a lot more this summer. There’s no greater feeling than escaping the confines of home life and taking to the expanses of the open road.

Mother 3 Review [Big N]
Jan 12th, 2010 by Dan

Great Mother 3 art

Wallpaper courtesy Pet-Shop on DeviantArt

Ruminations on video games as an art form – this could very well become a Mother 3 review. There will be spoilers here. Seriously, don’t read it if you want to play Mother 3 and not have the plot spoiled.

There’s a trite comparison that floats around the internet almost every month that always gets my eyes rolling. Inevitably, someone will call such-and-such the Citizen Kane of video games or ask what the Citizen Kane is or claim that the medium is immature because we’ve yet to hit our Citizen Kane. It’s exhausting and, quite frankly, futile and stupid. To begin with, Citizen Kane opened with good reviews and was generally well-received, but it didn’t start to gain notoriety for ten years. It didn’t even make #1 on a top movies list until twenty years had passed. When the Citizen Kane of gaming hits (god I hate that phrase), we probably won’t know it for quite some time. The more important point is that movies and games are apples and oranges.

The day that we stop worrying about whether books or movies are better than games at expressing a particular artist’s point of view is probably the day that we’ll realize that we’ve already got fine examples of games that are reflections of authorial control already. Brütal Legend was not a great game, but Tim Schafer’s hands are clearly evident all over it. Anyone who’s ever played one of Fumito Ueda’s games knows precisely how a game can effectively be used to bring out your emotions through simple mechanics. Goichi Suda (AKA Suda 51) has been making games that show clear, artistic direction through his use of bizarre symbols and incomprehensible plots for years. My point is, we’ve been here for a while.

You may have heard of Shigesato Itoi, but chances are, you have no clue that he’s one of the most famous and respected men in Japan to such a degree that his dog was probably the most recognizable animal in the entire country for a few years. In America, we know him as a video game designer, specifically the man behind Earthbound, but not much else. Interestingly enough, Itoi is actually more famous for being an essayist, interviewer, and slogan generator than his work for Nintendo. His association with Hayao Miyazaki is well known enough that he’s famous for the Kiki’s Delivery Service slogan (“Ochikondari mo shita kedo, watashi wa genki desu” — “I was a little depressed for a bit; I’m okay now”) and he even voiced Mei’s father in My Neighbor Totoro (a role that went to Phil Hartman (rest in peace) when the movie was dubbed in English).

In his younger days, Itoi found himself sick and unable to do much but play Nintendo as he recovered. It was in this state that he discovered Dragon Quest, which set the wheels turning in his head. This experience was the impetus behind the Mother series and led to Itoi’s long, fruitful relationship with Nintendo. In case you were wondering (protip: you probably weren’t), Shigesato Itoi is the guy who came up with the name for the Game Boy. True fact.

It’s not surprising to me that most of the names I’ve mentioned were not always video game designers. The most bizarre of the bunch, Suda, was an undertaker before he tried his luck in the video game industry while Ueda was an artist and the aforementioned Itoi was a…well there’s no easy word to describe someone like Itoi. He was (and is) a cultural personality.

“If you immerse yourself too single-mindedly in your chosen art form, whether it’s video games, movies, comics or whatever,” he continues, “your work can easily become just a reflection of what others are doing in that field, rather than breaking new ground.”

-Jordan Mechner

Now, Schafer is, himself, a product of the industry, having held no other jobs, but he’s the exception, a true creative mind that is not crippled by his feedback loop of doom. Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Psychonauts, and Brütal Legend could not be more different from each other, but just think of how rare this is. For every Schafer or Ken Levine out there trying to bring new influences into the industry, there are tons of Star Wars- and Lord of the Rings-inspired games produced each year retreading on the same, tired stories game in and game out. How many World War II games do we really need?

BOING!

In 1989 Shigesato Itoi looked at the video game industry and said “How many sword and sorcery RPGs do we really need?” 2009 just passed us by and I’d say we’re still mostly mired in these medieval locales in 95% of all RPGs. Mother, Itoi’s freshman attempt at a video game, was set in “modern day” America. Earthbound (Mother 2) wasn’t exactly breaking with Itoi’s norm by being set in America yet again (in 1994), but it’s still a light among the sameness that pervaded the industry. Mother 3 is ambiguous about its timeline, but it feels like a scaled back modern day. In any case, like in the other games of the series, the weapons aren’t swords and bows, but sticks, yo-yos, and baseball bats. It’s really only a cosmetic and tonal shift, but it makes all the difference.

That’s exactly what makes Shigesato Itoi so great as a game designer. Perhaps it’s his outside status or maybe it’s just his brilliance, but Itoi understands video games to a scary degree for a man who only undertook them on a whim. I applaud him most for understanding that a game is an interactive piece of art and reflecting that with his systems. To wit, every Mother game revolves around music. The first game had the character searching for the Eight Melodies while the second repeated that idea with Eight Sanctuaries (each with a musical theme associated with it). Earthbound’s instruction manual (in Japanese) contained a little song that Itoi wrote for the player to sing as the main melody played on the overworld. Every line of text in the Mother series is written in kana (katakana or hiragana), so that the person has to vocalize Itoi’s often lyrical writing style. Mother 3’s focus on musical themes and leifmotifs (from the Masked Man to the Magypsies) is also emphasized through every character’s attacks in the battle system.

From Lucas to Salsa the Monkey, every character has a musical instrument associated with his attacks. So does every enemy. Each enemy also has a musical theme that plays in the background. Once you attack, you can continue to press the ‘A’ button to extend your combo to 16 hits if you can keep time with the (sometimes fiendishly difficult) beat. Just like that, something Itoi has always wanted the player to do (become musically involved with his world) becomes integrated into the activity the player does most in the game, battling.

Itoi also loves to toy with player perception to a hilarious degree. In an early sequence in the first chapter of the game, Flint becomes covered with soot after saving a friend’s kid from a fire. Why? Because that’s what would happen if you were running around in a fire. As he makes his way back out of the woods, you can bet that every person you talk to will question why you are covered from head to toe in black soot. Even better, if you hop into a hot spring to recover, the soot will wash off of your character from the neck down, since the Mother 3 hot spring animation always leaves the head exposed. It’s not until much later when it starts to rain that the soot washes off Flint’s face, this time to emphasize that we’re not joking around anymore, Flint’s family was still missing after the fire and they were almost certainly in danger.

An even more brilliant sequence comes much later in the game when the player is washed upon a tropical island with 1 HP and no equipment. The only way to progress through the jungle without dying is to eat one of the psychotropic mushrooms growing on the island. A bizarre sequence of events follows as you make your way to the next Magypsy with your perceptions completely torn asunder. Replicas of your family and friends attack you, which isn’t that unique for an RPG, but the way the narrative is presented and the visuals are warped, it becomes seriously unsettling. The one moment of calm comes when you arrive at another hot spring and recover, only to continue back into the horrors of the jungle.

Once you get to the Magypsy’s house, you’re constantly bombarded with insults about how bad you smell. It makes no sense though, because the player has done nothing different that would cause such a foul smell. Still, when your perception is returned to normal, there is a visible stench rising from Lucas and his compatriots. A quick dip in the bath follows and you’re no longer “smelly”, but, as a curious player, I wondered what had happened in the first place. Instead of continuing forward, I dove right back into the jungle to get to the bottom of it. halfway through, I was feeling a bit fatigued, so I popped on over to the hot springs and it all made sense. In my hallucinogenic state, I was unable to recognize that the pond I dove into for recovery was a festering, toxic-looking garbage dump of a pond. Off to the side, where no conceivable player would ever go, was a door into the real hot spring.

I couldn’t believe that some players would never find out the mystery behind why they were so smelly. Returning to that hot spring is hardly mandatory. Maybe that’s why it felt so amazing to see these little narrative games played with my perception of what was going on in the Mother 3 world at the time. It’s also interesting to look at from a player trust perspective, because when I saw that disgusting pond, rendered in all its GBA, low-fi glory, I felt nauseous and I know it was partly due to a feeling of betrayal. I have a feeling that this was exactly how Itoi wanted me to feel at that point.

Shigesato Itoi admits that the original draft for Mother 3 was way darker than it already is. It was written shortly after his divorce was finalized, which I think has a lot to do with the emotional betrayals of even the finalized version of this game. However this game was very nearly vaporware that was never released. Its development started for the SNES in 1994, but was quickly shifted to the N64 and the ill-fated 64DD not long after. Anyone familiar with the 64DD peripheral knows that this was going to prove troublesome for Itoi and his team. The game was even canceled at one point, but it was eventually decided to put it on the Gameboy Advance and announced around the re-release of Mother 1 + 2, no doubt to help drum up sales.

No one but the team knows just how dark the original narrative was, but Itoi claims that the story that eventually made it to print was the result of him finally becoming a good person. It boggles the mind to realize that it could have been any more dramatic, especially for a game that looks as friendly and cute as this one. In fact, this is the reason why Nintendo of America claims it will not localize the game. They claim the narrative is too mature and depressing for the way it looks and, really, the tone and the subject matter are alternatively irrelevant and deathly serious, so I kind of get what they mean. At one point you have a guy telling Flint that he’s got good news and bad news. The good news is something irrelevant and stupid while the bad news is that Flint’s wife, Hinawa, is dead. What follows is a scene that is so emotionally gripping that my little brother was affected even without hearing the music and sound associated with the scene. Flint completely flips out and starts beating on the guy who gave him bad news and even starts lashing out at the townspeople who are trying to calm him down. He is knocked out by a friend and put in a jail cell that has never before been used in the town’s existence.

It’s this weird juxtaposition of the inane and the deathly serious that creates the dissonant feelings I mentioned before with the hot tub scene and makes the player feel uneasy about what’s going on. When Hinawa’s father, Alec, is trying to tell stupid jokes to help Flint not be so tense about the certain danger his son is in. I wanted to tell him to shut up and let him focus, but I could also see that Flint was obsessing to a dangerous degree and that Alec was right in trying to calm him down. You also have the lighthearted love story of Salsa and Samba being ruined by the brutal and sadistic torturer Yokuba (Fassad in the fan-translation). It’s like Itoi is trying to say that the world is a screwed up place, but you can’t let it get you down.

I’ll tell you right here, I’m a huge sucker for any story about brothers. Later on in the game, it becomes fairly obvious that Mother 3 starts to center around the struggle of twin brothers Lucas and Claus as they attempt to collect more plot coupons than the other. The game series is called Mother for a reason and this one in particular focuses on the differences between each of Hinawa’s boys and how they came to deal with her untimely death. While Lucas comes out of his shell and becomes a healthier, more assertive and confident boy despite his absentee father, Claus foolishly rushes out for vengeance and finds himself enslaved by the Pig Army in its quest to end the world. The climactic final battle reunites the family once again, but the reunion is bittersweet. Claus has almost killed Flint and Lucas must face him alone to the death, even though he’s yet to realize that the Masked Man is his brother. Once the mask is knocked off and Lucas is staring into his own face (they are twins after all), the battle becomes a masterpiece. Selecting attack will cause Lucas to intentionally pull his punches or miss his attacks completely. Sometimes he’ll even refuse to comply. Claus, having lost most of his humanity, will continue to attack until Hinawa begins pleading for him to stop. Eventually, Claus comes to his senses and realizes that Lucas is his brother and that he is no longer anything close to himself. At that point, Claus commits suicide in a peculiar way. It becomes apparent that the Courage Badge that Flint gave to Lucas (via a Mr. Saturn in another example of absentee parenting) is actually a Franklin Badge, an item that repels lightning in the Mother world.

The heartbreaking thing about this whole sequence is that there’s nothing the player can do once Claus decides that he must kill himself to save the world. Lucas may not be physically (or psychically) killing his brother, but there’s nothing he can do but watch his brother kill himself using an item that he is holding. When it’s all over and Claus is dying in Lucas’ arms with Flint nearby and Hinawa’s ghost above them, the reunion is finally completed and the family is happy for a brief second before both Claus and Hinawa depart the world leaving Lucas to pull the last plot coupon. The world literally ends and it all fades to black. Everyone (who was alive before) is still alive in the finale, but the world is darkness and it’s not made clear what the true outcome of the whole battle was. We do know that the world is safe and everyone makes it, but not much else beyond that, it’s left to the player to decide, I guess.

If you want to really see a strangely tragic, chilling ending for a character, consider the fate of Porky, the antagonist in the game. The conflict in this game is motivated by his desire to see the world end. Porky’s mind was so warped by Giygas in Earthbound that he has remained in a permanent immature, childlike state even though he is now hundreds of years old. His influence corrupts and nearly destroys everything about the idyllic and peaceful Tazmily village and he is the one responsible for sapping Claus of all of his humanity. In his final encounter with Lucas, when it becomes apparent that he will not win the battle, he encases himself in the Absolutely Safe Machine, a capsule that renders him absolutely safe from all attacks both interior and exterior. Because it was just a prototype, there was no way to escape it, meaning that the ageless Porky can never die, but he can never leave the capsule nor can he communicate with anyone on the outside. For someone like Porky, an agent of entropy like the Joker in The Dark Knight, this is truly an ending worse than death. When all is dead and gone, when the universe dies of heat death, when existence is nothingness, Porky will still exist, alone in that capsule. It gives me chills just to think about it.

There’s so much about this game that just doesn’t quite add up and leaves the player feeling strange about the relationships they are seeing. Duster, the limping thief, is very clearly verbally and probably physically abused by his father, Wess, yet they seem to be a team and there does seem to be some love there. It’s unsettling on all levels because Itoi wants to take the player from comfortable and happy to uneasy and sad throughout the whole game.

Games like this, they make me appreciate things, like my family and my life, and think about things, like the nature of society and happiness. I’m being simplistic here, but my point is this, what is art? Wikipedia calls it, “…the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.”

So I say yet again, why are we questioning whether or not video games are art? Wake up and smell the sunflowers.

One of the most interesting and artistic chapters of the game.

Tetris [GO]
Oct 7th, 2009 by Dan

Eric came up with an idea to write parallel reviews of the same video game to see how similar our reviews came out. You can see his at Eric’s Binary World 2.0

Tetris is…”video gaming distilled to its core

The most fun a person can have playing Tetris is completing this drop

The most fun a person can have playing Tetris is completing this drop

A Tetris Review (In Four Lines)

Tetris is a game where you try to clear lines from the screen using six different shapes.
The highest number of lines you can clear with one shape is four (called a Tetris).
There is no narrative reason for you to clear lines.
The reason for you to clear lines is because it is fun.

There’s absolutely no reason to review Tetris. The game has existed longer than I’ve even been alive. Most everyone who’s played video games has played it at least once. Everyone I know who has played it loves it. What is there to say about a game like that? I could write about tetrominoes, but I’m pretty sure most anyone who reads that word will say, “What the hell is a tetronimo?” (protip: it’s what the individual Tetris shapes are called) or I could talk about Tetris syndrome, a repetitive stress symptom resulting from endlessly watching these blocks fall into place to clear lines.

None of these actually express the point of Tetris.

The Game Boy launched in 1989, only three years after my birth and too soon for me to experience it until far later. The system sold on the market until 2001 and the original iteration came bundled with Tetris. I don’t remember the year that my older brother, Eric, got his hands on a Game Boy nor do I remember the year that I got one, but I know that we had one in 1992 and I know that I played the hell out of that game, both alone and with Eric and David. I have distinct memories of straining my eyes in the car, playing a few seconds at a time between the streetlights in Miami, probably causing the severe vision problems I’m beset with today.

Before we get any further, I think it’s time for a digression.

For the first time since 1978, the entire oeuvre of The Beatles became available again for people to buy. Just about everyone who was alive during the brief seven years that the band released albums went out and paid what former 1UP editor Jeff Green affectionately called the “60s tax” to relive the blessed music of their youth. While I’m definitely not a flower child in any sense of the word, I happen to be a pretty big fan of The Beatles. I went out and paid my dues to nostalgia to bring home the works of The Greatest Rock Band of All Time. With deliberate caution I opened up the packaging and began systematically ripping and listening to the catalog in strict chronological order. I discovered something that I already knew, but had neither the equipment nor the resources to effectively conclude: The Beatles are fucking amazing. Note that I didn’t use the past tense there, there is something undeniably timeless about their beats, their beautiful bass lines, those perfect harmonies, and the sublime percussive talents of one Mr. Starr.

I’m no audiophile, I’m no serious student of music, I’m no musician, but I fancy myself a true lover of music. It’s rare for me to entirely dismiss a genre of music, I’ll listen to it all and I do my best to collect music from as many different sources as I can. Music is something that resonates with the basic, primal, inherently human parts of me. Before there was society, before there were cities, before there was an Internet (mind-boggling, I know!), there was music. Before we knew how to rock, there were The Beatles.

The first track on Please Please Me is “I Saw Her Standing There.” Within that short, 2:54 song, a pure, simple, but complex sound bursts from speakers. From Paul’s frenetic bass line, to the clean, non-threatening vocals, the harmonies from John and George, and the pure perfection of the backbeat, it’s clear, at least from my vantage point in 2009, that I’m listening to a group that had so mastered their medium that the only logical progression was for them to take music and irreversibly change it. The Beatles may have started with a medium that was established, but they would go on to create early forays into almost every modern genre. Just glancing at the bits of trivia contained within The Beatles: Rock Band shows a group unafraid to experiment with technology and push the medium to its furthest reaches. They found ways to implement the new until they ended with Let It Be sounding almost nothing like when they started.

It’s the astute reader who already sees where I’m going with this.

A Tetris Review (In Haiku)

Four lines disappear
A never-ending supply
The fun never ends

Pong is a simple game. Its spartan simplicity was necessity. When it comes down to it, it’s really just two lines at the edge of a screen bouncing a pixel back and forth. You couldn’t really do more than that, but it was the 1972. Comparatively, Donkey Kong is a ridiculously complicated game released in 1981. As Jumpman, you’re required to scale ladders, hop over barrels and fireballs, possibly smashing them with a hammer, and go toe to toe with a gigantic ape to save a damsel in distress. In 2009, I’m a huge fan of Left 4 Dead, a game that requires me to keep track of my health, the health of my allies, maintain situational awareness, know how to deal with six different types of zombies, each with unique attack/AI behavior patterns, navigate huge, 3D environments, and be able to aim and fire eight or so different weapon types. Tetris requires me to manage six shapes (two pairs of which are mirror variations on the same theme) and arrange them into lines. It’s not Pong, but it’s not even Donkey Kong complex. One joystick and two buttons that ostensibly serve one purpose.

There’s a reason almost everyone alive today has played Tetris and that people who don’t play video games still love Tetris. The barrier of entry is so low that anyone can play, but, thanks to the complexity created by the interplay of these six shapes, (WARNING: cliché approaching) very few can truly master it. When you combine that with the pure joy of taking that line piece you’ve been waiting almost twenty blocks for, while your tower sits mere millimeters from the top of the screen, and slamming it as hard as you can into place, generating that happy little sound effect while instantly eradicating four lines, well you’ve got yourself some magic there, don’t you?

Eric has a house, a wife, cameras that probably cost more than an unfortunately large proportion of the population makes in one month, multiple, powerful computers, a High Definition (TM!) television, a Nintendo Wii, and countless other distractions, but, inevitably, when I ask him if he’s watched this box set I lent him or had a chance to check this or that out, he’ll tell me, often enough that this isn’t that big of an exaggeration, that he didn’t get much done on a given night because he was busy playing Tetris online against his sister-in-law. It’s just something that calls to people, gamer or not, to play and try to master. It is timeless. It is a force of nature. It is rock. It is video gaming distilled to its core.

A Tetris Review (In One Word)

Perfection

Game Overview: 16-Bit All-Stars
Jun 6th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

I like to think of the 16-bit era as the age when video games truly began to blossom into the glorious medium we enjoy consuming today. I suppose if i were to fully apply that metaphor, it would make the first and second generations the ugly infancy and childhood of gaming and the third generation rather like the puberty of gaming, also encompassing those difficult growing pains of the teen years. This, naturally, places the fourth generation in the sexy 18-24 demographic that, ironically, most video games are marketed to today.

Now that we’ve wrapped our minds around that rather interesting image, let’s talk about what was happening around this time in the industry. The big systems that I care about, the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, were launched, along with their hand held counterparts, the Game Boy and the Game Gear. Although we reaped the massive benefits of the competition, we were unfortunately subjected a whole slew of marketing buzzword crap about “blast processing” on the Sega Genesis, not to mention those obnoxious “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” commercials (sensing a bias?).

Yeah, there’s a wee bit of a chip on my shoulder. You see, as a kid, I remember wanting the Super Nintendo for Christmas a lot. I don’t even know how I knew about it or anything, but I knew I wanted one. Instead, my aunt gave us a Sega Genesis, which my older brother wanted. It was indeed a bitter pill to swallow that Christmas, but we did have a breakthrough the next year when I got Super Mario Kart on Christmas Eve, but no SNES, signaling that I just might be getting a Super Nintendo from my parents the next morning on Christmas Day. Nintendo fanboyism aside, I did give a fair shake to both Sega and Nintendo games, but no Sega games made my top three.

In keeping with past conventions, you’ve just received your hint as to what my number three game is: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

(If you didn’t get it, past was bolded and there was a link to a past post…yeah, I’m that clever)

#3 The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

I’ll tell you what, I didn’t play the number three game nor did I play the game that lost (by a tiny sliver) to LttP during the lifetime of the SNES. I played the #4 game (to be revealed soon!) on a ROM once the Gamecube was already released and I played Zelda on a Player’s Choice (I think that’s what it was called?) cart I bought from the store once the N64 was already Nintendo’s dominant platform. I’m super saddened by the fact that I lost the cart (damn you Evan…you “already returned” it, did you?), but it truly was Shigeru Miyamoto’s masterpiece on the console.

Link to the Past did a few things right of the bat to re-endear Zelda fans to the update with its return to the overhead view and abandonment of the more RPG-centric gameplay that was central to Zelda II. The new overworld was beautiful with vibrant colors and amazingly detailed sprites. It seemed like Link could travel forever through the maps and that secrets were hidden at every corner. The quest was also an epic affair as Link collected three pendants to prove his worthiness to wield the Master Sword to confront the evil wizard Agahnim and save Zelda. Once I’d finally done all this and confronted Agahnim, I thought, surely this is the final boss, this game is almost over, that stinks. Then the most surprising thing happened, I was sucked into the Dark World. My goal was now to save the seven maidens descended from the seven sages. Holy crap! I had seven more plot coupons to collect, which meant seven more dungeons, and a whole new world to explore before I would be able to confront the real bad guy, Ganon.

It’s pretty old hat nowadays for Nintendo to have two worlds in a Zelda game. Ocarina of Time had present and future Hyrule, The Minish Cap had the normal-sized and minish worlds, and Twilight Princess had twilight and normal worlds. Back then though, this was a completely new concept to me that I had only seen done once before (see #2 on my list) and it just totally blew my mind. The puzzles that dealt with this gameplay mechanic were also superb, with changes in the dark world affecting the light world somehow. I remember feeling like I was totally at a loss for what to do to uncover the many secrets that would require me to cleverly swap between dark and light worlds.

Link’s expanded inventory was also pretty sweet. There were all sorts of little Easter eggs within the different enemy types dependent on what equipment you used to attack them with. I distinctly remember that some of the buggers could be completely emasculated with a dash of magic powder, for example. While boss fights still weren’t that challenging (an issue I’ve been having with Nintendo for quite some time now), I thought it was innovative back then how you had to figure out how to use the new equipment you found in the dungeon to attack the boss monster.

A Link to the Past was just a well put together game. The story was way more epic than any Zelda game that preceded it, there were countless secrets lying in wait for the diligent explorer (remember the guy who “curses” your magic bar?), and you had not just one, but two giant worlds to wander around, vanquishing evil. Some don’t think the game has aged very well, but I’d still recommend LttP for a Virtual Console purchase, it’s one of the best games from the era.

In keeping with the funny commercial kick I’m feeling, check out this Japanese Link to the Past commercial:

Makes me laugh how girls always make the best live-action Links

The next game on the list actually was just edged out of the #1 spot, but I’m gonna blame number confusion during localization for that one. That’s a pretty obscure hint, so I’m just gonna come out and say it. #2 on my list of 16-bit All-Stars is Final Fantasy III…erm…Final Fantasy VI!

#2 Final Fantasy VI

I don’t remember precisely where I heard or read this, but very recently I digested some media regarding one guy’s initial reaction to playing Final Fantasy VI. What he said was “I remember renting this game and being about an hour or so in thinking ‘There’s no way I’m gonna be able to finish this in three days…'” The reason I put that quote in there is because the very same thing happened to my brothers and I. After re-renting the game a few times and finding our save files deleted each time, we decided that we would bite the bullet and just hold on to the game until we were done, effectively renting it multiple, consecutive times. At the end of the first three days, we were about halfway done. At the end of the second, we had reached 3/4 completion. Finally, in the third rental period, after about a days worth of grinding, we completed the greatest Final Fantasy game that has ever been made and, with the departure of Sakaguchi to form Mistwalker in 2001, possibly the greatest they will ever make.

I can already feel the FF VII fanboys chomping at the bit to tell me how wrong I am, but it is they who are wrong. You see, right before Final Fantasy was about androgynous emo-kids with big swords whose dialog consists of “…” more often than not, it was about an epic cast of characters fighting against an evil empire in what was, admittedly, a rip-off of the Star Wars story. Yet, it does just about EVERYTHING right and I the closest I’ve seen a Final Fantasy game come since would be a bastard child of the characters from XII and the superb storytelling elements of X.

One of the features of Final Fantasy VI I’ve most enjoyed is the mostly non-central character in the game. You start as Terra, but, halfway through the game, you’re mostly controlling Celes and Terra even refuses to join your party again until maybe halfway through the second half (that’s 3/4 of the way through the game for the math incapable). While some of the 14 (!) characters in the cast are mostly tangential and unrelated to the story or other characters (I’m looking at you Mog, Gogo, Umaro), only two really have no real emotional connection to the story (Mog and Umaro) with every other character getting a chance in the spotlight either directly or indirectly (Gogo is Daryll, I won’t accept any other conclusion). Most every character has touching and revealing sidequests that go beyond the typical “dodge lightning” or “chocobo racing” nonsense that modern-day Final Fantasy games have us do to get ultimate weapons or techniques. Some of the back stories are even so cleverly hidden that you can play the game through multiple times and never see the details (by cleverly, I mean annoyingly…why did I have to learn Shadow’s backstory through fanfics?), but when you learn about the characters, find out how they’re interrelated, find out what makes them tick, these guys all find a place in that warm, fuzzy little part of your brain. I can still feel Locke’s anguish as he tries and fails to revive Rachel, still understand Terra’s feelings of alienation, fear, and confusion as she learns what it is to be human from the first people to treat her like one, and I can still tear up a bit as I learn about Gau’s insane father throwing him out into the wild and rejecting his son as he comes back in a more “civilized” manner.

All of those memorable scenes and characters and I still haven’t even mentioned the masterful opera scene that I’m sure you’ve heard about. There are some things that get me positively salivating at the thought of a 3D remake of Final Fantasy VI like the remakes of III and IV, but few add up to how much I’d love to see and hear the opera scene unpixelated and processed with better sound tech.

I haven’t even gotten to the gameplay yet either. 14 characters, all with unique technique systems (something we wouldn’t really see again until FF IX), my favorite magic system, Espers, and a general non-reliance on summons that was negated with FF VII and ended, fortunately, with FF X (XI doesn’t count). Armor was still lovingly complex, with multiple equipment options beyond the oversimplified “Weapon, Armor, Accessory” systems of future Final Fantasy games and we had two “Accessory” slots with the awesome “Relic” system, which was used to not only give characters neat abilities, but accentuate their inborn character abilities.

I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without even mentioning the most evil and incredibly awesome antagonist in a Final Fantasy game, heck in just about any game: Kefka. Tapping into everyone’s already morbid fear of clowns (or is it just me who finds them vaguely unsettling?) Kefka brings a whole new level of insane to the job of final boss. The man starts off as comic relief. He’s got that funny processed laugh that the SNES chip throws out at you, he looks ridiculous, and he’s hilariously mean to his underlings. Any fight you ever get into with him, he runs away from or uses illiusions. How evil could he be? That’s when the shit starts to hit the fan. The first act of defiance that the player knows of against Kefka by an ally to the Emperor leads to an attempt to burn the entire castle down and destroy the monarchy. Another rebel nation has its entire water supply poisoned by the psychopath. At the insane encounter (that I thought to be the end of the game when I initially played it) on the Floating Continent, Kefka not only murders the Emperor and throws him off the continent, he shuffles around the statues that hold the world in balance, effectively ending the world as we all know it. With new godly powers at his command taken from murdering Espers and the statues, Kefka reshapes the world, smiting any town that refuses to obey him with the “Light of Judgement.” The mad clown even has a cult of followers devoted to his cause and is an absolute nihilist, claiming that life is meaningless and aiming to destroy everything. All this from a man who looks like a clown. It’s chilling and he’s never been matched since (don’t even mention Sephiroth in the same sentence, he’s an absolute tool compared to Kefka).

Let’s just end it with this, and this is a major spoiler, but how many other games have you ever played where halfway through the game, the world ends, you’re potentially the only survivor in the drastically modified desolate wasteland of the world map, and you’ve got the choice to either save or kill a man who looks like a hot dog before you leave the island? I thought so.

Since we’ve got a good thing going with these ridiculous commercials, let’s keep it up with a US FF III (IV) commercial that I actually never saw on TV:

The Japanese commercial was a lot more epic, I think:

Wow, that FF VI blurb was really long, I might be running out of time to tell you about the #1 game. If you still need another hint, according to the game, the world “ended” in September of 1999 at 1324. That’s right, the best game of the 16-bit era is the Squaresoft/Enix collaboration: Chrono Trigger

#1 Chrono Trigger

There’s a long, storied history between Chrono Trigger and myself. I’m pretty sure the year was 1996 or 1997. My family was living out in Oregon and our electronics store of choice was Incredible Universe. IU, as we liked to call it, had a nifty little area where you could leave the kids to play video games while you shopped for consumer electronics. My older brother was too old for it and I was just hitting the cusp, but my parents were still able to leave my younger brother and I in there to hang out. IU provided many a video gaming experience that we didn’t have at home, since we couldn’t just be out buying everything, plus we didn’t know about all the systems. It was at IU that I played the Sega Saturn the only two or three times I ever have in my life and the only place I’ve ever even seen a Philips CD-I and Mario Hotel (so awful…). It’s also the place that introduced me to the console RPG, forever changing my life.

It was an unassuming day out in the Pacific Northwest when I popped Chrono Trigger into one of the SNES consoles in the play area. I was attracted by the cool seeming box art featuring a red-haired dude with a sword, a blonde girl shooting fire, and a frog man fighting some giant lizard thing. Cool, right? So I boot up the game, select New Game, and then I get to name my character. This was nothing special, I’d done the same with Link in the original Legend of Zelda, but boy was I surprised when some character was telling me to wake up. I had named the main character. The red-haired guy was me! I was told to go to the fair and I don’t remember if I went straight there or not, but once I got there I ran around, watched some races and just marveled at how much was going on in this Millennial Fair. Then I ran into a new character, the blonde from the cover, and, holy cow, I could name her too! We fought Gato (Gonzalez in the Japanese version?) in my first ever RPG battle and I’m pretty sure we lost too, but it was so cool. I had to select these attacks from a menu. I’m pretty sure I only just got sent into the past at Lucca’s exhibit before my parents showed up to pick me up, but a already a change was brewing within me. As I told my older brother about the game and piqued some of his interest, I started my evolution as a gamer.

That night I dreamed of Chrono Trigger. I was in the game then too and we wandered around fighting bad guys. Shortly thereafter, my older brother (you’ll have to clarify what about this game attracted you to it and made you buy into my propaganda. did we rent it before this event happened?) spotted it at the video game rental place for a pricey (for us) $20. The three brothers banded together to fund the purchase of the game (try to find a SNES CT cartridge for that cheap on Ebay nowadays!) with each of us paying a little less than the older sibling and we brought our prize home.

Honestly, aside from action RPGs like Zelda or, randomly, the Illusion of Gaia, I’d never played an RPG before in any form. This first exposure would motivate a good chunk of our game rentals for the SNES (like FF VI and FF IV), cause mass disappointment when Square sided with the PSX after that tantalizing N64 FF VI demo, lead to me purchasing FF VII for the PC and basically forcing it to work on our piece of junk PC, and eventually lead to me buying a refurbished PS2 so that I could enjoy the PSX and PS2 JRPGs that I’d missed in my years of owning an N64 and Gamecube instead of the premier RPG systems. The JRPG remains my absolute favorite video game genre, if you couldn’t tell from all the Persona 3: FES and Persona 4 coverage in this blog. I even picked up a PS3 more or less in preparation for the continuation of the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series. On this front alone, Chrono Trigger holds a prime spot in my all-time video game shortlist, but this doesn’t even count the amazing gameplay to be experienced.

CT is just about perfect on all fronts. This is why it barely edged out my favorite FF game for the top spot on this list. When I sat down and thought carefully about it, I couldn’t think of any reason for FF VI to top CT or for CT to not be the number one game. It’s that good. For starters, it’s got one of the more innovative Active Time Battle systems present in any of the Final Fantasy games to date. Now, on top of the monsters and characters taking turns based on a time gauge, there was the added dimension of attack range and splash damage. Some of your attacks could damage multiple monsters depending on where they were placed on the screen. Also dependent on the monster and character placement were Technique combos. Your characters all had their own techniques, but they also had set attacks that could be used in unison with other members of your party, creating interesting party composition choices depending on the battle situation. The monsters were also viewable on the screen and, in some cases, avoidable. This has always been a hallmark of a good RPG for my older brother who’s not so much a fan of the random encounter. I’m a bit more tolerant of RPG grind, so I don’t mind it so much, but it was creative for the time for you to be able to see your enemies on screen, but for the game to not be an action RPG.

The story is truly where this game shines, with its epic trips spanning throughout time as you witness how your actions change the modern world and future for the better or worse. Sure, the good ‘ol future apocalypse switcheroo seems a bit clichéd given that all three games on this list have some sort of similar plot twist, but a well-crafted plot device still gets me every time. I still remember uncovering the video of the Day of Lavos on a seemingly benign quest to recover some food for some poor survivors in Arris Dome. The shock as I saw the world as they knew it destroyed in 1999 (a mere two or three years away for me) told me, if you’ll excuse the lame expression, that I wasn’t in Kansas any more. The plot is so expertly handled in this game, it really does achieve the lofty storytelling goals that I think the medium aspires to hit, all without being campy or lame in the very slightest. The disappearance of Marle when you get to the castle in AD 600, your trial and incarceration in AD 1000, the escape to post-apocalyptic AD 2300, discovery of the fate of the world as it slowly dies and mankind goes extinct, your epic foray to fight Magus and prevent the advent of Lavos in AD 600 only to discover that he was, in fact, working against the ancient evil, the discovery that Lavos had been around as early as 65,000,000 BC, and the amazing socially-divided kingdom of 12,000 BC that Magus himself hails from. It’s all so expertly crafted.

Just like FF VI, every character has a meaningful and worthwhile backstory/sidequest to complete. You can bring about the recovery of a forest and save Lucca’s mother from being handicapped, discover the secret about Robo’s line of robots, ensure the evolution of man by defeating sentient reptiles, and you can even choose to either forgive the warlock Magus for his sins or pass judgment upon him and rid the world of his influence. That last one was of particular importance, because Magus was a powerful ally, but his life ensured that Frog would remain forever cursed to remain, well, a frog.

A particularly powerful moment in the story, for me, I believe follows your second trip to 12,000 BC and the kingdom of Zeal. The group, intent on ending the threat of Lavos right then and there, confronts the beast with killing intent. It all goes sour (“Oh crap! When did I last save? This fight is so damn unfair, it had better be one you’re supposed to lose…”), but then the unthinkable happens. Lavos kills Crono. At this point, still new to RPGs (which still don’t feature all that much permanent death) I was floored. They truly did everything right with this story, as I was there with the characters as they mourned the death of Crono and soldiered on with their burden to destroy Lavos. His revival was also particularly awesome. I can still picture the cutscene of his revival. I can see him sitting against that scraggly old, leafless tree and I can remember Marle lunging at him, her embrace full of joy at his return to life atop Death’s Peak.

From then on, it was sidequest time as I truly connected with the denizens of the Chrono Trigger timeline, fixing the past, present, and future and making the world a better place. I then went on to fight Lavos himself to free the world of his taint and ensure a future for all the people of the world I had come to love. Once I had secured a future for Crono and Marle’s strongly implied inevitable progeny and I returned to the title screen, I was greeted with an interesting new feature, the New Game +. I could start the game all over again at the same levels, with the same equipment, and just have another go at the story. This was a time in my life when I didn’t have access to as many games as I do nowadays, so I had the leisure time available to beat Chrono Trigger the close to ten or so times that I did while I owned the cartridge. Admittedly, some of the later wins were due to wanting to see the multiple endings that I discovered existed. I had not known that there were thirteen whole endings, but once I did I tried to get as many as I had the patience for, including the super-difficult special ending that you can only get if you can take on Lavos 1-on-1 with Crono in the beginning of the game.

I don’t know what else there is to say about such an epic and truly amazing game. I hope that one day Square Enix finally decides to make a true sequel to what is arguably their magnum opus (I don’t count Chrono Cross). I guess it would be tough to come up with a reason for there to be a sequel in that world, but, in that case, a more loyal spiritual sequel would even suffice. So much about that game is perfect and I know that the talent isn’t totally gone from that company. Lightning can strike twice and here’s to hoping that it does some day.

By the way, if you don’t think my opinion is enough, check out Tim Rogers‘ review of this spectacular game. He does a much better job of analyzing why the story is awesome.

I can’t find a great commercial for this game, but here’s what I have found:

Here’s the opening of the PSX re-release, complete with animations by Toriyama’s studio to complement the already excellent Akira Toriyama designs in game:

“Hey Masa, I’m the wind…woosh!”

Nothing short of absolute excellence. I’m gonna have to get my hands on that soundtrack one of these days. It is incredible.

There you go, those are the top three games of the 16-bit era. Play those and you’re all set, you’ve got a taste for the best the period has to offer. Just like last week, keep on tuning in to see what other games I feel deserve mention from this era and feel free to let me know if I’ve missed something.

Game Overview Editorial: Difficulty in Video Games
May 8th, 2008 by Dan

You’re playing through an RPG. You’ve gained five levels, found some sweet equipment drops, minimized the use of your precious items, and then it happens. You come up against a behemoth of a monster. Your party is decimated, your progress lost, your controller tossed through the screen.

Does this even begin to sound familiar to anyone? It’s like modern gaming, in an effort to bring in an even broader audience, has started to dumb down our video game experience. Think back to the last four, at the very least, Final Fantasy games (not counting XI). Aside from side quest bosses who are geared to be a challenge, how often did you even find yourself remotely challenged in these games? I honestly don’t think I worried much about save points in any of these games (aside from when I was hunting the harder mobs in XII) at all. There was none of that between-save-point stress and worry that a game with any difficulty might throw at me. I just go on through the game, breezing through the fights and find myself at the final boss, sometimes taking more than one try to kill him, but, more often than not, just breezing through him too.

It’s not just RPGs either. Think back to Mario Galaxy. The only challenge in that game came from the green stars where the developers were given free range to punish players into some of the toughest, most fun challenges possible. Even The Legend of Zelda isn’t safe. The last two console installments, The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, were among the easiest games I have ever played. Sure, their stories were epic and fun, but the bosses were jokes compared to past Zelda games. They dealt close to no heart damage, they had hyper-predictable patterns, and they were just plain not challenging. I don’t think that I’ve evolved much in skill as a gamer since about the sixth grade and I definitely remember more challenge in both Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past when I played them (late to the game, I know).

There is hope. Mistwalker’s latest RPG for the Xbox 360, Lost Odyssey, will actually make you hope that a save point is imminent. The enemies will brutalize you if you mess up. It seems odd that I’m actually hoping for a game to punish me for screwing up or not leveling up, but I just can’t take a game that doesn’t even challenge me in the slightest. I consume games mainly for story, this is true, but I don’t want the story-telling to come so easily that I might as well be watching a movie or reading a book. It can get frustrating when a game is difficult because it’s broken or the computer cheats :cough: Mario Kart Wii :cough:, but it’s also tremendously satisfying to spend an hour bashing your head against the wall trying to defeat a boss only to finally get it down and win with just a sliver of health left.

This is why I look forward to the day when I will be able to devote more time to Persona 3: FES. The short time I spent with the game already almost beat me in a random encounter and I’m sure that an actual boss will own me several times. I fully believe that a game should punish you for making a mistake and I already know from experience that Persona will wail on me for being an idiot.

There’s certainly a market for casual games and casual gamers out there, one only needs to look to the Wii to see that fact with obvious clarity, but surely it wouldn’t be too difficult for developers to go out and actually make a game tough for players. The inclusion of difficulty levels, even with the fact that it means more work, will satisfy me. Here’s hoping that we see harder games in the future.

»  Substance:WordPress   »  Style:Ahren Ahimsa